614 Summer Road Trip: Skydiving, wake boarding, more in Butler County, OH
“Do you wanna go on a crazy adventure all over Butler County and do all sorts of crazy fun stuff?!” My editor spat out his words hurriedly. It was 8:45am.
“I think so?” I mumbled back.
“There will be ice cream…” he purred.
“I’m in,” I said instinctively. I have a habit of saying yes and I had been through Butler County a few times before, always having a great time. If he thought it was a good idea, I trusted him.
“So when do we wanna go? In a few weeks?”
“WE don’t go, just you,” he said. “And you’re skydiving. And you leave in 20 minutes.”
Like that, I was on the highway heading to Hamilton, OH, just 90 minutes southwest of Columbus. I pulled up to the stately Courtyard Marriott and admired the view. The hotel overlooks the Great Miami River, which cuts through the heart of beautiful downtown Hamilton, and it is every bit as exquisite on the inside as it appears from the exterior.
I stepped through the front doors and was immediately greeted by two extra-friendly receptionists. They handed me an itinerary but I was too nervous to peek inside.
The elevator carried me swiftly to the clean, spacious fifth floor room that I would call home for the next two days, although I unfortunately didn’t spend much time there. I dropped my bag and unfurled the tri-folded piece of paper that held my fate. Skydiving was the first activity on the list. The room was top-notch, but I had to go.
Before I could hurl myself out of a moving plane 14,000 feet above the surface of the planet, I knew I had to put something in my queasy stomach. I decided to go to Jungle Jim’s International Market, a wondrous bazaar of unusual sustenance carrying over 180,000 different edible items and almost seven acres of one-of-a-kind personality.
More amusement park than grocery store, Jim’s stocks foodstuffs from every country under the sun, if you can even look past the wild décor and animatronic mascots. They’ve got fresh-baked breads and desserts, to exotic meats and cheeses, unique candies and beverages, truly just about everything you could ever dream of stuffing in your face. Normally I would gravitate to the 1,400+ hot sauces, 4,000+ beers, or 12,000+ wines, but I figured drab would be the way to go before my jump. I grabbed some weird fruit, hot bread, and cheese I’d never heard of and hit the road. I’ll definitely be back to sample the really good stuff, and it will probably be a totally different experience. At least I used their award-winning ‘Best Bathrooms in America’ to empty my bladder before entering the stratosphere.
I had a thirty minute drive north to Start Skydiving in Middletown, OH, which I spent the entirety of thinking about my own mortality, especially when we passed the Butler County Coroner’s Office. As we got farther out of town the buildings peeled away, leaving just blue sky and green land. It was beautiful country, but all I could think about was plummeting quickly from one and forcibly into the other.
We pulled up to the facilities and I was immediately impressed, and relieved. Dozens of people milled around, packing parachutes, giving instructions, and high-fiving each other on successful jumps. Ranked the ‘#1 Drop Zone in the World’ (!), I could tell from the outset that I was in good hands. I do a lot of idiotic and reckless things, and suddenly I realized this might not even be the most dangerous thing I did today.
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After signing in, I was escorted to an open hangar to be fitted for a jumpsuit and to meet the other people who would be diving with me. Since it was my first time, I would be completing, hopefully, a tandem jump, which meant there would be an experience professional on-hand to handle the important stuff. We’d also be accompanied by a videographer to document things, for better or worse.
I met my expert for the trip, Aaron, who had more than eight hundred jumps under his belt including four already that morning. He walked me through the process and answered all my questions, which alleviated my concerns. Until he was tightening up my harness and mumbled, “Won’t let anyone fall outta one of these…again.” Very personable, these guys.
We climbed into the small eight-person aircraft and lifted off towards the heavens. My heart pumped harder with each passing second as the reality of the situation set in. Then at 14,000 feet, the door slid open. My throat clenched as I peered into the abyss, and there was no possibility I was going through with it. Before I could protest, military-trained Aaron stood up with my puny 140lbs. hanging from him like a fanny pack and we jumped out of the freaking airplane.
The rush was unlike anything I had ever felt, smashing through clouds at 125 miles per hour as we hurtled nearly TWO MILES through the sky before Aaron pulled the rip chord. We glided through the warm afternoon air, still thousands of feet above the Earth, and surveyed miles and miles of land. Aaron had me pull down on yellow straps hanging from either side of the parachute, sending us spinning rapidly, and real life ceased to exist. It was a completely surreal experience and my stomach flutters just recalling it.
We gently thudded to the ground and I could barely stand up, the emotion of the experience still hung so heavy on my shoulders. We had survived, and I needed a beer.
Truly, if you’ve ever had the inclination to engage in this insanity, do it at Start Skydiving. And throw down the extra couple bucks to get photos and video, as I still go back and check them at least once a day to assure myself I lived through it.
I headed back to the hotel to change into my bathing suit, as I had a few hours of wake boarding up next, but I really thought a cold beer would do me some good after the incredible events of the morning. Luckily, not 30 yards from the Marriott was the perfect oasis…
Municipal Brew Works had everything I needed at the moment, a giant patio and a dozen delicious beers for me to drink on it. The staff were welcoming and let me try a handful of their options, all brewed on-site, before I selected. My favorites were the dark, chocolaty Midnight Cut Porter, the fruity Woltermelon Blonde and Center Of It Ale, and best of all the Free City Ale, but the beers are constantly rotating so I’ll definitely be back to see what future concoctions they’re offering.
After a little lubrication it was time for some wake boarding at Wake Nation, just four miles from the hotel. As a total novice to the sport, I was welcomed by the crew who helped me pick out just the right board, life vest and helmet, and sent out onto the practice pond to try my hand at things. Wake Nation runs a cable system to pull boarders, unlike the traditional boat-pulled method, so it’s very easy to get a quick handle on the basics and after just a few tries I was zipping along like a seasoned pro, even trying out some advanced techniques. I credit my trainer Trey, who quickly spotted my trouble areas and knew just how to correct my form.
After an hour on the practice pond we moved over to the larger lake for some knee boarding, a variation that doesn’t involve standing all the way up. The main cable system runs a little faster than the practice version, resulting in a couple solid wipe-outs, but that’s really part of the fun. Wake Nation, now under new management after nine years of operation, also offers a giant inflatable aqua-park with a giant trampoline for propelling yourself into the water, and will debuting a super-slide, restaurant and beer garden in 2018, so obviously I’ll be back to partake in all of those.
If action-packed water activities are your jam, this place really can’t be beat. An all-day lake pass is just $40, and they offer lessons and camps for those just getting started. Wake Nation also hosts contests and events for the more experienced, but I’ll need a few more trips around the practice pond before I give one of those a try.
For more information on the places I visited, click below!
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